Rita Di Santo interviews Haifaa Al-Mansour the first female Saudi director, at the Red Sea Film Festival
Haifaa Al-Mansour does not need much introduction. She is a woman who is making history: the first female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia. Her first feature Wadjda (2012), filmed while hiding in the back of a van on the streets of Riyadh, debuted in competition at the Venice Film Festival. Her latest, The Perfect Candidate, a political drama about a woman who runs for office and then finds her campaign gaining unexpected momentum, also showcased at the Venice festival.
Haifaa Al-Mansour now lives in the USA with her American husband, Brad and two children, but she was born in a little village in Saudi, and went to study cinema in Cairo, with the support of her father. I met Haifaa at the First Edition of The Red Sea Film Festival, in Jeddah, the first film festival ever held in Saudi Arabia.
How did you become the first filmmaker of Saudi Arabia?
I created my own luck. I come from a small town in Saudi Arabia. I grew up not speaking any English at all. I went to public schools, and I was in a small town that is almost not on the map. I was lucky that my parents, who did not speak English and just middle class, were liberal somehow at heart. They didn't force me to veil, and they brought music into the family, but I lived my childhood as the typical Saudi life.
When did you realise that you were becoming the first female filmmaker of Saudi Arabia?
I was a young woman. I didn’t have any connection with cinema people. I was making films for me, and my first film was an extremely amateur experience. My brother held the camera. My sister was the star, and I didn't know how edit it. I didn’t know what the concept of a short film was. I sent it to a film festival in Abu Dhabi and it got accepted and they sent me an invitation. I went there and I didn’t know what was happening. They told me “You are the first female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia.” And I said "Yes, I am!" I think if a woman has passion to tell a story, there will be a place for her. If you go online, you can apply and get funds. There is something for people who are willing to change their lives. You cannot force people who just don't want to do anything, right? But people who want to have an adventure in art, they will find a way. There's a young filmmaker in a small town like me away from anywhere and I think that there is a place for her to start.
Now you leave in the US. How do you feel coming back to Saudi Arabia?
It's amazing to go to the airport and see women in public working, at the passports control and everywhere. When I grew up, women weren't allowed at all to have contact with the public. We had to be shielded. I remember I interviewed a religious figure who was very conservative but now he has changed a lot and became liberal. One of his sayings was, "A woman has three places. Her father's house, her husband's house and her grave." So now to see women opening, being in public place, it is amazing.
It is very complicated to tell Saudi stories, because the change is very intrinsic. I have a sister who just recently got divorced and before the father would've taken the kids. She wouldn't be able to do any paperwork or go to the court by herself. She had to have a guardian. She couldn't drive. Now she can drive. She's taking her kids. She does all her paperwork. She's so empowered as a human being in her own little business, which is huge for her. I remember when I got married, I couldn’t do my medical exams, my American husband had to sign for me. Now a woman can do medical exams without the authorization of her husband.
Cinema was forbidden in Saudi, and you started by watching movies on VHS with your dad. When did you have the opportunity to watch movies on the big screen?
When I was a kid, I remember trying to rent from the VHS store in Saudi Arabia. I was 14, wearing my veil, and going completely covered. There was a sign outside the store 'Women are not allowed in'. I had to stay outside the store, looking at the catalogue, then my dad had to rent the movies I wanted to watch. We used to go to Egypt with my family, and I could watch movies on a big screen. I remember that very clearly. It's amazing now to see things have access to women.
What are your hopes with this festival? What type of conversation can we create and what needs to be done still? What do you see the next frontier will be?
I want to see more female filmmakers. I think Saudi's cinema now is very intimate because it is still at the beginning. But there is a huge room for women to tell their amazing stories. I'm excited to see a new wave of filmmakers, especially women. But I hope this festival becomes a place that launches the careers of filmmakers from the Middle East. We really need to see more voices from this world, and we need to see more liberal voices. It's a process. We need to open up, and we are opening. We need to hear more local stories that can create a cultural shift.
Can you tell something about The Perfect Candidate. I loved that film.
It shows how the patriarchal system oppresses women, but in a way that it seems like a fun movie as well. It is a story with a message, but it is also entertaining.
How do you achieve that kind of balance?
People expect a sad film about someone who's being oppressed, but I always want to bring protagonists, who are not victims, who are maybe born in difficult circumstances, but they're not defeated by their circumstances. And I want the audience to love watching a movie. The power of cinema is in entertaining. I want them to go and have fun, even if I'm bringing a sad story from Saudi Arabia to some art house.
The 35 years where cinemas were forbidden, what did it do to you?
It made me appreciate the cinema more. Cinema is almost everywhere with Netflix and other platforms. Cinema is just a little bit in a shaky moment in the world, but not in Saudi Arabia. We love movies because we haven't had them for long time. There is this nostalgia of watching a movie with people in the room. It's an experience that we did not have, we are eager to go through that.
We can see a new generation of women filmmakers coming in this country. Is this strong presence of women happening only in cinema, or in all areas of society?
Women are just having a moment now. Before there was a glass ceiling for women getting promotion and all that. I don't think that glass ceiling is here anymore. Women can do things if they believe in themselves. Still, it's a conservative society and there will be a lot of struggles. It's not a dream. It's not a rosy picture, but it is a picture that is worth telling. And it's a journey that is worth taking because it will pay off.
It might be hard; people will not accept this change right away because we've been conservative for so long. We cannot imagine a female composer, because composing has a lot of control. It's not going to be easy. Women need to capitalize on the moment and just never take “no” for an answer and not be intimidated by the challenges.
Did you think that Chloe Zhao, winning the Oscar, made a big difference?
It's amazing to see women of colour just taking the front centre. It was really touching for me. I'm rooting for Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog. I'm really excited for her. It will be amazing to win the Oscars once again this year for a woman. That will make a splash and will pave the way for people to understand that we are just part of the mainstream. We are filmmakers and you must understand and assess us in that way.
How do you feel to be the first female filmmaker making history – the history of Saudi Arabia cinema?
I feel proud. I hope to inspire other girls to make films and stuff, but like, yeah. I just feel proud, but I'm in no way a role model. I hope people make better decisions.
Rita di Santo is a film critic and reviewer.